During winter… the brothers shall rise at the eigth hour of the night as is reasonable.
Why does prayer need to be so structured?
What now follows, between chapter 8 and 20, is a series of short practical and pragmatic directions as to when and how to say prayers. This may be hard going, particularly for people who don’t like rigid structure to something that ‘should be heart felt and organic’. As an Anglican I appreciate set prayers as well as extemporary (free-form) ones. There are times when you cannot muster an articulation and everything in you is buckling to the temptation to not engage. We will all come into seasons when prayer is not only tough but painful; to sit and speak to God is the last thing you want to do. Duty binds you to do it and so you try to begin but you have no words to say. It is easier to wait until you feel in the mood.
A rhythm of prayer is essential for such times.
When I was at college we said Morning Prayer everyday from Monday to Friday at 8.30am. For many of us this was not an ideal time and the form was not to our liking. We were sat down early on by the then warden and she laid down the law. Everyone was expected to come to Morning Prayer unless there was extreme circumstances and ones that had been checked by a tutor. Why? Because it was about setting a habit which would sustain you. It was about developing a prayer life which wasn’t based on how you felt but on commitment to God.
We are so keen to keep relationships on our terms. We know that we are social creatures but we fail, so often, on those demands of real connection. We want partners and friends who fit into our lives but we are not always willing to adapt to fit into theirs. Prayer can’t be just when we want to. There needs to be an element of sitting in God’s presence for Him.
St. Benedict is setting a rhythm of prayer to create a habit which gives God as much opportunity to do His work in our life. When God is shaping us or challenging some sin in our life it is painful and we don’t want to engage in the process so we stay away from times when He may want to speak. We want to stay in control of how much we give over to Him. With a habit of prayer which is regular we are given the structures which guard our hearts against such temptations and steers us into His presence.
The Divine office at night, or Matins, was to be said before sunrise in the darkness. Here St. Benedict gives clear instructions in case anyone feels they can become lax on such matters. Lauds, or Morning Prayer, is to be said at sunrise. We will explore why they had seven Divine offices during the day plus the one at night later on. For now, I want to say what we all will be thinking…
Are you serious, Benedict?!
It is thought that Benedict meant to have Matins start at midnight and, after it is finished, to go to bed to be awake and ready for Lauds at sunrise (7am, or 6am in the summer). I thought, as I was writing on the Divine Office at night for the next four weeks I’d try and stay awake until midnight and do Matins at the set time. As it happens, on Wednesdays I have an ecumenical prayer meeting which starts at 7.30am. It’s not quite being ready for prayer at 7am but it’ll be painful enough. I want to see how it feels. I will write about my experience and reflections next week.
The question arises, however; how is this possibly going to work in a parish context? Is this one thing which should be adapted? Practically I’d have to concede, yes, it is wrong to consider it workable outside the committed life of prayer in a monastery. This comes from experience of trying to get people to join me just for morning and evening prayer. I will be reflecting on this struggle to encourage a regular pattern of corporate prayer amongst people who have work schedules and families over the next few weeks because it seems it is over something as tangible and understandable as when we should pray together that this ‘parish monasticism’ all begins to unravel and I’m not in the least bit surprised. Why would Satan want us to pray regularly and be in a place where God will transform us?
For the next week, try committing to praying at a set time each day, morning, midday, evening and night. Even for our of the eight offices set for Benedictine communities it’s tough going! I have established a habit of morning, midday and evening prayer and I still struggle to keep them, everyday. If this is too hard for you why not commit to taking on one extra prayer time than you’re used to. If you don’t have any set prayer time, set one, in the morning or at night or over lunch. You will definitely need a liturgy because you can’t always turn on prayer and sustain it for a set period of time; your mind will wander. There are lots of helpful prayers to help and hold you: The Northumbria Community’s liturgy is my preference, but there’s also the Simple Way’s Common Prayer and the Church of England’s Daily Prayer. Find one that you find helpful.
Lord, I want to meet with You on Your terms. I want You to do with me what You will however painful that might be. Reveal my weaknesses and strengthen me.
Come, Lord Jesus.